Demand is set to soar for innovative new hydropower technologies which provide flexibility and resilience for electricity grids, according to a new industry survey.

The survey of the hydropower and wider energy sector by the International Hydropower Association (IHA) indicates there is high demand for new smart control systems, battery-hybrids and variable-speed turbines among other technologies.

The survey gathered views on flexibility in the power system and new hydropower technologies being demonstrated by a four-year EU research initiative, XFLEX HYDRO. The project is led by a consortium involving IHA and 18 partners including Andritz Hydro, GE Renewable Energy, Voith Hydro, and Swiss research institute and university Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), among others.

Hydropower is seen as an increasingly important source of flexibility for power systems and a way of balancing fast-growing variable renewables, primarily wind and solar power, in the power grid. The new XFLEX HYDRO technologies being trialled are set to dramatically enhance hydropower’s flexible generation and ancillary services even further.

Two-thirds of respondents (67%) questioned in the survey said they expect to use smart digital controls for hydropower plants in the future – up from the 48% of respondents currently using such controls.

There was also high interest by respondents in using other flexible technologies, such as hydro-battery hybrids (61%), variable speed (59%), and hydraulic short circuiting (57%). This is a big increase on the number of respondents currently using these technologies at 24%, 35%a nd 30% respectively.

Key findings of the survey showed very high agreement with the following:

  • The importance of flexible hydropower to the future power system
  • That flexible hydropower is critical to achieving ambitious EU targets
  • That enhancing the flexible capabilities and performance of hydropower is a priority.

The survey indicates strong market demand for the technologies being demonstrated by the XFLEX HYDRO project, including a new Smart Power Plant Supervisor system being developed by EPFL.

“Digitalisation and artificial intelligence are having a profound impact on the power sector, including hydropower,” said Dr Elena Vagnoni, scientist and lecturer at EPFL and XFLEX HYDRO Scientific Coordinator. “The XFLEX HYDRO project is developing the Smart Power Plant Supervisor, an effective forecasting and decision-making digital tool to assess the health of the hydroelectric system and optimise operations to improve the flexibility and lifespan of plants. Benefits for hydropower plant operators include maximising unit availability and participation in balancing markets, and efficient power production.”

Another technology, the variable speed turbine, can provide multiple services such as virtual inertia and fast frequency response, adding greater flexibility of operation to electricity grid regulation.

“Using variable speed technology, power input during pumping can be controlled continuously. In addition, efficiency, especially in turbine part load ranges is improved remarkably. Start-up of the turbine is considerably faster and provides much smoother operation for the complete unit compared to fixed-speed units,” commented Dr Alexander Jung, Head of Digital Hydro Solutions at Voith. “Variable speed is, therefore, an advantage for overall unit performance with numerous benefits for the energy markets of today and tomorrow. The XFLEX HYDRO Frades 2 demonstration with its two variable speed pump turbine units will help to quantify the potential of variable speed technology to increase the flexibility of the European power system.”